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Is This Sporting Event Worth Your Ad Dollars?

*Note: All data courtesy of Nielsen*

With the Winter Olympics – and its historically low ratings – in the rearview mirror, many advertisers are suffering from buyer’s remorse.

Daily scores indicate a product that wasn’t first on many households’ lists when choosing what to watch that night. Judging the games as a whole, they were the lowest-rated ever after dropping 10 percent from a previous low just four years earlier.

The U.S. didn’t have a strong showing, which may have been a factor after finishing fourth in total medals – also fewer than the total haul from Sochi. The NHL’s decision to ban its players from participating in the Olympics also hampered what is otherwise a ratings winner in the States.

While both were obviously contributing factors to a lackluster two-week performance for NBC and its advertisers, it brings to light a much larger question brands must consider: How do you tell which national sporting event is worth your investment?

There are plenty of big events, tournaments and sporting spectacles we should expect to take over our television screens over the next 10 months. Here are the trends we’re tracking for each:

NCAA Tournament

Local market ratings are largely dependent on nearby universities, but plenty of people get swept up in “March Madness” as the tournament goes on. Last year’s Final Four was up 37 percent, and the second highest in 12 years.

World Cup

Fox Sports shelled out $400 million in an effort to outbid ESPN for FIFA World Cup broadcast rights from Russia. However, the U.S. Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the tournament – essentially eliminating a large swath of potential eyeballs on the event. The network will attempt to promote the tournament around the world’s biggest international stars, like Messi and Ronaldo. Still, forecasts expect a large dip in ratings with no Michael Bradley or Christian Pulisic on the pitch.

PGA Golf

A healthy Tiger Woods means a big return on investment dollars in 2018. In the tournaments he has participated in so far this year, weekend ratings have been up 40-55 percent. If he is in contention in any of the four Majors this year, expect a sizeable ratings lift.


With the absence of many well-known drivers and past champions – Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Carl Edwards to name a few – NASCAR ratings have been trending down. Its biggest event, the Daytona 500, had record low ratings this year– down 23 percent.


Primarily a regional ratings play, MLB typically ranks No. 1 in local markets where teams play. Ratings are strongest in early spring and adjust according to on-field performance. But when it comes to October, ratings have been trending up. Last year’s playoffs were the highest-rated since 2011, even beating out the curse-ending Chicago Cubs’ run the previous year.


Perhaps the most speculated topic in sports advertising this year is why NFL ratings are down. Theories include protests, the president, concussions, off-field behavior, injuries, rules, flags, instant replay, and so on. The fact remains that this year’s Super Bowl, which featured a highly-competitive game between two huge media markets (Boston and Philadelphia), delivered the smallest audience in nine years.


There has been a seven percent increase in local market ratings for the NBA this year, but its national all-star game broadcast was down. Taking on a new format with captain’s picks vs. the traditional East vs. West, the game dipped 1.5 percent.


The 2017 Playoffs were up three percent over a record year in 2016, and also featured the highest rated All-Star game ever.

College Football

Some fear that NCAA football is following the trend of the NFL. In 2017, CBS, ABC, NBC and ESPN all posted significant ratings declines. The deal that the Big 10 conference made with Fox led to record-high viewership for the network. Additionally, the college football playoffs had a 9 percent jump in ratings.

Live sporting events can be a great way to get your message in front of millions of viewers at any given time. Marketers should always do their research beforehand. But, if there’s a fit, it’s easy to see why prices for ad space during these types of world spectacles can be worth more to a company than the attached dollar amount.

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